Jeremy Holmes

How do you communicate with staff in a crisis like Coronavirus?

Actually there hasn’t been anything “like” Coronavirus in our lifetimes. Jokers used to say when an organisation hit a sudden crisis the best time to talk to staff was always “about a month ago.”

But that’s not much help when, like pharmacy, you’ve been in the eye of a rampant virus storm.

If you had a Business Continuity Plan (aka a Disaster Recovery Plan) it probably had a section on “Communication”. But I bet it didn’t have “self-isolation” or “furlough” in it. Or anything about guidance on PPE.

And it’s one thing having a plan, quite another when you’ve got to communicate with colleagues effectively and sensitively as you come out of a crisis that’s truly global and unprecedented.

The first thing to sort is who’s the Communications Lead to staff. You don’t want different people putting out different messages about the re-set. Staff will be uncertain and possibly worried, but don’t overload them, either with huge emails or documents, or with frequent “scattergun” messages; that will just make things worse.

The oil industry is one that knows something about managing crises, and ways out of them. A colleague in that sector tells me staff communication is all about the “three C’s”:

  • Be clear – and clarity often comes from being concise. Resist the temptation to waffle on about being “here to support and protect you.” Maybe say it once but get to the meat of the message quickly. Just by communicating practical messages, clearly identifying what colleagues need to do, in the dispensary, with suppliers delivering products, with care homes and with patients, will signal confidence. And staff will realise you’re with them.
  • Be consistent – changes of direction can be confusing and destabilising. If there’s a major change in the external environment (relaxation of lockdown for example), explain clearly what the change is, why a new approach is needed and what it means in practice for staff. The most recent announcement by the Prime Minister (on May 10th) may be a case in point – more of which in a moment.
  • Be considerate – a silver lining of some crises is they allow you to show you really do care about your staff, and they will remember that. If you demonstrate genuine concern for how difficult it is, it will foster team spirit and long term loyalty. As well as inspiring them to go the extra mile in helping the business emerge in the best possible shape. Just saying you realise it’s tough and you appreciate the effort they’re making goes a long way.

Many people have been wondering what the latest announcement on the stages of lockdown relaxation really means for them. Make sure you check what your local NHS, the pharmacy trade bodies, the GPhC and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society are saying before you tell staff how you’re going to work through the changes together.

Remember, staff won’t necessarily come to you with their worries or queries about what happens next. You’ll have to reach out to them. So be available – even if that’s remotely. If you’re not in the pharmacy yourself, or some of your team are at home, can you have a regular Skype or Zoom call with them, and use email or the “chat” facility to gather individual questions they don’t want to voice in front of others?

Have you already talked to them about PPE and interacting with patients, including tricky things like responding to patient queries you don’t know the answer to and how to take payments? (Contactless is probably the preferred option for that, but you need a card reader that’s close enough to the patient while they’re two metres away.)

And how are you and they communicating with any volunteers you might have at the moment?

It’s worth talking individually to staff returning from self-isolation or furlough, and anyone else who’s particularly anxious. You might put up some clear, simple reminder notices in the dispensary on any new protocols, with a pointer on how staff can talk to you or access any other sources of support such as Pharmacist Support. Maybe with a small dose of thanks as well. Try to avoid “all telling, no listening” whilst at the same time providing reassurance and leadership.

Ah “leadership,” I hear you say. Crises often sort the leaders from the rest. Remember who in your team was good under pressure, and maybe bring them onto the crisis management team as part of an updated Business Continuity Plan (useful for the next pandemic!).

Finally, consider making some of your internal communications public, especially when they impact on patient interaction or working practices. It can be reassuring for patients to see how staff are being supported back to some kind of “business as usual,” and the team know exactly what they’re doing.

Teams often come out of a crisis much stronger than they went in. They learn about each other, they acquire a common “history in adversity” and afterwards they can celebrate getting through it together.

If you want to share your stories and/or experiences with us, please send an email to [email protected]